Plato’s Legacy

2021.12.01

Zbigniew Stawrowski

On the republic and the republican attitude

In the modern world of politics, different ideological currents compete with each other for our souls and minds. Some of these trends, focusing on their own, in their opinion the most appropriate, solutions to the problems of man and society, often do not notice other essential aspects of human existence or even ignore them. For example, liberals, while emphasizing the personal freedom of an individual and the need to protect their fundamental rights, tend to forget about the obligations arising from the community dimension of our existence. Socialists, constantly striving for the welfare of the poorest stratum of society, do not care too much when the implementation of their plans entails a violation of the sphere of personal freedom of others, and the closely related ideologues of democracy in their desire to eliminate all inequalities have long since lost the moderation that allows to separate the unfair privileges from normal or even natural differentiation.

On the background of these various ideological and political trends, the republican position deserves special attention. The idea of ​​a republic – when properly understood – reflects and carries within itself the deepest intuitions that have accompanied political reflection from the beginning of our civilization. Moreover, it is a position that can embrace all reliable points of view, including those raised in too one-sided and over-emphasized form by representatives of other currents.

Rights and benefits

As it is known, republic is one of the most frequently used terms for both ancient and modern forms of state organisms. The meaning of this concept, like the meaning of many other important political terms, the content of which has been subject to historical transformations, is, however, ambiguous and may cause misunderstandings. It happens that the word “republic” is used interchangeably with the word “democracy”, which seems – at least in part – justified by the fact that the republic is in fact associated with a system in which all citizens participate in the co-governing of the state.

However, the most common contemporary understanding of a republic is simply the opposite of a monarchy. That is why countries ruled by someone other than the king are sometimes called republics, regardless of the fundamental differences in their system shape. In this sense, not only the French Republic had the right to do so, but also the Weimar Republic or even the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

This understanding of the republic, based on which we find a real or symbolic act of regicide, is opposed by a much older, but still living tradition. It does not deal with the presence or absence of the monarch at all, but sees the republic as a space for the realization of the common good. The foundation of this second understanding of the republic is not some specific institutional solution regarding the form of exercising power, but rather a specific way of being of citizens, their way of perceiving themselves and their relationship with the political community.

In order to reveal the original meaning of the word “republic”, it is worth referring to the etymology. Res publica is a public thing, a “common thing”, and its opposite is res privata – something that belongs only to me and that I can do with it whatever I like. However, this “common thing” is not only our common property in the sense that we are entitled to use and dispose of it together. Rather, it is something that we are bound by together and that we must care for together. Res publica is primarily our attitude towards the community, an attitude for which the readiness to serve the common good is a natural, obvious matter and is at the top of our hierarchy of values ​​- even higher than our own life. A republic, that is Rzeczpospolita in Polish, is – as Marek Tuliusz Cicero wrote – “a common cause that we care for together, not as a chaotic group, but a numerous assembly, united by the recognition of the law and benefits of living in a community”[1]

Principles of justice

Although the Latin word res publica refers us to ancient Rome, the philosophical reflection on the idea of ​​the republic and the republican attitude was born and fully developed in ancient Greece. Thanks to this, Cicero – the most famous political thinker of Rome and at the same time one of the last defenders of the Roman republic – could abundantly use the intellectual achievements of Plato and Aristotle, which had arisen three centuries earlier. For these philosophers, the question of seeing polis as the common good was obvious.

Plato in his “Politea” – its name should translate not as “State”, but precisely as “Republic” – presents us with a harmonious vision of man and interpersonal relations, in which the highest calling of everyone is ethical and intellectual development, while those who have gone the furthest in this development, are not only the most enlightened, but also obliged to ensure that the next generation can continue on the path of similar development. Plato in all his works constantly expresses the conviction that “political activity is nothing but the implementation of the principles of justice”[2].

Republican thinking is therefore about a just state – a well-governed and well-arranged state, with good rulers as well as good laws and institutions. First and foremost, this raises the question of good rulers: who is at the head of a community cannot be an indifferent matter, and the most important criterion for assessing and selecting rulers should be their attitude towards the community. Plato calls the ruling guardians for a reason, because they are not supposed to hold power, but to guard the policies and the order that permeates it. The guardian of the state, who fully deserves his name, “does not look at his own interest or recommend it, but cares about the interests of the subject […] always keeping an eye on what is in the interests of his subjects and what is befitting them.” Power in the republican perspective is by its essence always of a servant character.[3].

Such an approach, which one would like to see in persons who rule, not tyrants in love with power, but as servants who guard the common good, may seem somewhat naive and outdated to us. Who among us today can still see in the word “minister” or “prime minister” (first minister) their original “servant” meaning? However, it is difficult to imagine contemporary politicians who – risking losing the support of potential voters – would dare to proclaim that they do not care about the public good and that they only care about pursuing their own interests. On the contrary, declarations of deep concern for the common good are a ritualistic element of every political speech. Even if the hypocrisy of such declarations is conspicuous, it also confirms what constitutes the essence of properly understood politics – it is “a tribute to virtue”[4].

This servant understanding of power, characteristic of the republican approach, is also emphasized by Plato in his later works, for example in the “Politician” dialogue, where he presents the original hierarchy of political systems. The starting point is the division of systems into monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, known at least since the times of Hesiod and commonly used. This quantitative – related to the number of people exercising power – is supplemented by Plato with a qualitative criterion. Each of the three systems mentioned can be further divided into two types depending on the goal of the rulers – whether they govern fairly or unfairly. Therefore, among all political systems, one should first of all distinguish those in which the rulers – no matter how many there are – are guided by the good of the community,- in other words – in which res publica remains the most important for them, and those in which the state for the rulers is ich res privata – a private farm, used to pursue their own interests.

Proper regimes

The three regimes in which the rulers care about the common good, thus showing a “republican” attitude, are – to use Aristotle’s terminology – proper regimes, the other three, where despots rule individually or in groups, degenerate regimes. According to Plato’s approach, it turns out that a state ruled by a king can also be a republic. Although such a statement would probably surprise many modern republicans, it was obvious in Poland in the times of the noble Republic, which, until the end of its existence, was also a monarchy.

While regimes governed in a “republican” manner are in principle good, while those governed in a “despotic” manner are bad and degenerate, there remains the question of the internal hierarchy within these two basic modes of governance. If those in power always had their own interests in mind, if we were always doomed to despotic systems, then – as Plato notes – the best system for the inhabitants of the polis would turn out to be democracy. The best here means the least bad, the least harmful. Here the matter of effectiveness is decisive. For where – as it is in a democracy – power remains in the hands of many, the government is “weak in all respects and incapable of any great good or bad, compared to other regimes.”[5] 

Plato, then, understands the motivations of all those who believe that democracy is a very bad system, but still much better than all the rest. At the same time, he is convinced that such an opinion can only be voiced by those who have completely abandoned the republican perspective and perceive the political sphere as an area in which at best the manifestations of evil can be minimized, especially the one that threatens from too powerful an authority. It is worth adding here that such a reduced understanding of the political space, in which the basic problem of politics becomes the containment of aggression and the introduction of a state of security and peace, prevails only in modern times. On the other hand, for Plato, Aristotle and their followers, maintaining peace and fighting against the manifestations of evil were indeed essential, but only a prerequisite for a well-organized political community, i.e. one in which people can become better.

Concentrated power

Which regime deserves to be distinguished from among the republican regimes where governance is exercised in the name of the public good? Plato, still taking into account the criterion of effectiveness, gives priority to those forms of the system in which power is more concentrated and thus capable of the greater good – that is, monarchy over aristocracy and democracy.

Ultimately, the Platonic classification of systems from best (1) to worst (6) is as follows:

Republican regimes

1. Monarchy
2. Aristocracy
3. Lawful democracy

Degenerate (despotic) systems

6. Tyranny (unlawful monarchy)
5. Oligarchy (illegal aristocracy)
4. Illegal democracy

However, to the conclusion presented in “The Politician” that the best form of a republic is a republican monarchy, even Plato himself seems not entirely convinced. In his other dialogues – especially in “Laws” – he presents a much more nuanced position on this issue. Taking into account not only the aspect of government effectiveness, but also those determinants of the common good that emphasize the importance of co-determination and the sense of responsibility of citizens for the fate of their own policies, it prepares the field for discussions that have arisen in modern times about who is entitled to enjoy the full political rights.

Moreover, introducing the perspective on politics in which the good of the community is the overriding goal allows Plato to go beyond the obvious question of whether monarchy, aristocracy or democracy is better. For there is no reason to insist on using pure forms of the system. Plato even claims that these forms do not even deserve the name of “systemt”, because they do not form any harmoniously “tuned” whole, but “the individual names of these alleged systems only determine whose possession is the power each time”[6]. Since we are looking for what is best for the community as a whole, it may turn out to be the combination of the most successful elements of each of these forms. In this way, Plato comes to the conviction – typical of all subsequent republican traditions – that a good regime should be a mixed regime. His last and most mature political work – “The Laws” – is devoted to the design of such a system in which the properly proportioned elements of monarchy (identified with the rule of reason) and democracy (recognizing the importance of the element of freedom), permeated by the aristocratic desire to pursue ethical and intellectual perfection, bind citizens with bonds of friendship, creating a community of people ready to give their lives for them and for themselves.

It is in this dialogue that Plato clearly shows that the idea he proclaimed of just government, serving the common good and supporting the ethical improvement of the members of the community, can be translated into specific institutional proposals. A just state is – let us repeat – a state that is both well-governed and well-established, with not only good rulers but also good institutions. In “The Laws”, Plato left to his republican successors the prototype of both the ideal of a political community and the road leading to the implementation of the ideal. This is the first systematically presented and detailed draft of the constitution of the state, as well as the conditions that must be met for this project to be implemented in the history of mankind. The idea of ​​a constitution, that is, the idea of ​​designing the best possible state and then creating it, is republican in itself, no matter how republican the specific solutions it proposes are. She is permeated with the hope of building a favorable institutional space in which people will not only be able to live in peace thanks to the establishment of just laws, but also become better, finding fulfillment of the meaning of their lives in the care of their community.

Keepers of the law

If you look closely at the specific propositions presented by Plato, you are struck by their topicality and the way of justification, which in its depth exceeds many that were created later, and even today’s institutional and legal theories.

On the one hand, these are solutions that deal with the basics of what we currently call the rule of law:

• first of all, recognition of the inviolability of property rights as the foundation of peaceful coexistence within the community,

• a theory of punishment based on the principle of fair retribution, but also taking into account all those correcting elements that became famous in Europe only at the end of the 18th century thanks to the work of the Marquis Beccaria – a theory that moreover contains the idea that the main purpose of the punishment is to restore friendship between the perpetrator and the victim,

• the theory of the functioning and proper organization of the judiciary together with the guiding principle of the judge’s independence from the political authority

On the other hand, Plato proposes the creation of political organs whose task is to ensure that the life of policies, especially the activities of people who exercise authority, remain oriented towards the common good. The most important institution here is the keeper of law, which combines the features of today’s constitutional court, state tribunal, and even a lustration court. The task of these keepers is, first of all, to monitor the process of election of positions of powers and the way in which governance is exercised: “It is certainly clear to everyone that, while the enactment of laws is a great achievement, if a well-ordered state is entrusted with the care of well-established laws, not only there won’t be any advantage, to an inadequate state; it will not be of good laws, but they will become the object of mockery and they will probably bring the greatest damage and shame on such a state ”. Hence, “the personal lives of those who will run for office, their background and conduct from childhood to the time of elections: must be considered and scrutinized.” Among other important functions related to “guarding the community”, the institution of educating young people should also be mentioned, because there is no permanent existence of a community without concern for the transmission from generation to generation of what belongs to its ethical heritage.

It is not difficult to see that many of the institutions proposed by Plato function – though often under different names – in today’s world. Some of them have been invented anew in recent times, without even being aware that there is a treasury from which one can freely draw. Regardless of this, in Plato’s thought we will find the first model of a “republican state of law” in the history of mankind- a state in which individuals can not only enjoy peace and personal security, but also feel that they are in a friendly, supportive space that allows them both to live and to live well.

Extracts

The idea of ​​a republic – when properly understood – reflects and carries within it the deepest intuitions of those that have accompanied political reflection from the beginning of our civilization. Moreover, it is a position that can embrace all reliable points of view, including those raised in an overly one-sided and over-emphasized form by representatives of other currents

Plato in all his works constantly expresses the conviction that “political activity is nothing but the implementation of the principles of justice”

Republican thinking is therefore about a just state – a well-governed and well-arranged state, with good rulers and good laws and institutions.

Power in the republican perspective is always of a servant character

Declarations of deep concern for the common good are a ritual element of every political speech. Even if the hypocrisy of such declarations is striking, it also confirms what constitutes the essence of properly understood politics – it is “a tribute to virtue”

Reduced understanding of the political space, in which the basic problem of politics is stopping aggression and introducing a state of security and peace, prevails only in modern times

A just state is – let us repeat – a state that is both well-governed and well-established, with not only good rulers, but also good institutions.

Taking into account the criterion of effectiveness, Plato gives priority to those forms of the system in which power is more concentrated and thus capable of the greater good – that is, monarchy over aristocracy and democracy.

Plato comes to the conviction – typical of the entire republican tradition – that a good regime should be a mixed regime

The idea of ​​a constitution, i.e. the idea of ​​designing the best possible state and then creating it, is republican in itself, no matter how republican the specific solutions proposed in it are.


[1] Cyceron, „O państwie. O prawach”, spolszczyła I. Żółtowska, Kęty 1999, s. 26 („De re publica”, ks. 1, XXV, 39).

[2] Platon, „Prawa”, przekład Maria Maykowska, PWN, Warszawa 1960, s. 223–224 (757c).

[3] Platon, „Państwo”, przekład Władysław Witwicki, Warszawa 1990, s. 58, (342c).

[4] François de La Rochefoucauld, „Maksymy”, 218.

[5] Platon, „Polityk”, przekład Władysław Witwicki, Warszawa 1956, s. 190 (303a).

[6] Platon, „Prawa”, wyd. cyt., s. 153 (713a).

Plato’s Legacy

DONATE US

Join the discussion